‘We Can’t Claim Mission Accomplished’: A Long Road for Afghan Refugees

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As a pilot in the Afghan Air Force, Abdul Wajed Ahadi conducted thousands of missions against Taliban strongholds. He made his final flight last year on Aug. 15, piloting his plane to Tajikistan to prevent it from falling into the hands of the insurgents who were surrounding Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. He eventually made his way to safety in the United States.

But he has spent much of the past year in a state of prolonged anxiety. His wife and three children are still in Afghanistan, where the economy has collapsed and the families of those who fought alongside the United States face possible reprisals from the Taliban.

“I am all the time thinking about my children, my wife, my family — what will they eat, what will happen to them,” said Mr. Ahadi, 31, who shares a house in Vancouver, Wash., with three other pilots whose families are also in Afghanistan.

It could be years before they are reunited. While fast-track permanent residency was offered to Cubans in the 1960s and Southeast Asians in the 1970s, a similar effort to help Afghan refugees settle permanently in the United States with their families has just been introduced in Congress, a first step.

“Things are just limping along, and that is as far away as we can think of from meeting our moral obligation,” said Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the tumultuous U.S. pullout a year ago spawned a new refugee crisis. More than 120,000 Afghans were airlifted and scattered around the world. Some 76,000, the biggest influx of wartime evacuees since the fall of Saigon in Vietnam, have reached the United States.

Canada has committed to receiving 40,000 Afghans by 2024, with about 17,000 admitted so far. Germany, Britain and Norway are among the European nations that have also agreed to accept the refugees.

But the Afghan exodus hit at a time when American refugee resettlement agencies had been sharply downsized under the Trump administration and the number of refugees accepted had plunged to historic lows; with millions of refugees fleeing Syria, the United States admitted only 76 Syrians in the 2018 fiscal year, along with 147 Iraqis.

The Biden administration has pushed to reinvigorate refugee programs, but immigration experts caution that the resettlement of people seeking safe haven in the United States has always been a long game, and, if history is any guide, Afghans could be arriving in the country for years to come.

About 130,000 Vietnamese were airlifted during the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Saigon in 1975, but by 1995 the country had taken in more than a million.

“It’s impossible to save everybody, but there was a herculean effort over a 20-year period,” said Amanda C. Demmer, a historian at Virginia Tech who has studied U.S. relations with Vietnam since 1975. “The million-dollar question is, will the Afghan evacuation happen over 20 years?”

After spending about four months on military bases, Afghans have landed in every state but Wyoming, with the largest numbers in Texas, California and Virginia. But arrivals have slowed to a trickle since late February, when focus shifted to the war in Ukraine, and the overall resettlement process has been challenging.

“What makes Afghan evacuees unique is that they arrived without knowing where in the United States they would be resettled, unlike people admitted officially as refugees who walk off the plane with a clear pathway to a green card and a process to reunite with immediate family left behind,” said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, one of the nonprofits contracted to resettle Afghans.

The vast majority of Afghan refugees have been admitted on what is known as humanitarian parole, which gives them permission to live and work in the United States for two years; to remain permanently, and to bring family members over, they must apply for asylum, an arduous, yearslong process that requires a litany of documents to prove they would face persecution if returned to Afghanistan.

Yet legal paperwork is only the beginning. Many Afghans have found housing to be expensive, and sometimes scarce. Learning English, navigating public transportation and getting a driver’s license have been colossal challenges for many. Others have suffered from depression after being uprooted abruptly from their homeland, abandoning their homes and leaving behind loved ones.

Many members of the educated elite have had to take menial jobs.

Mohammed Amin, a former senior counterterrorism official whose family was resettled in Fayetteville, Ark., recently started working as a supervisor at a poultry plant. He worries that the $3,700 a month he earns will not cover the rent and bills without the government assistance he received for food and living expenses before getting a job.

“Feeding a big family is much more difficult in the U.S.,” said Mr. Amin, whose seven children range in age from 3 months to 13 years. “But we are safe, and my six daughters will get an education.’’

Finding affordable housing for big families has been especially challenging. And it is proving very difficult for women with many children at home to attend English classes.

Some families have settled in more easily. Mohammad bin Rahimi, a former guard at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, lived for four months with his wife and seven children in an 1850s-era log cabin in the countryside in Owensboro, Ky. But the family is now settled in a three-bedroom house. Mr. Rahimi is working at a chicken plant. His oldest daughter, Hernesa, 21, is employed at a uniform distributor. Both companies are providing English classes, and the school-age children are thriving. The family recently purchased a 2012 Chevrolet Equinox.

To create more success stories, the overwhelmed refugee system has raced to reopen offices closed under the Trump administration and to hire new staff. The government has enlisted ordinary Americans to relieve some pressure from resettlement agencies and complement their work.

In Los Angeles and other cities, small groups called “sponsor circles” have formed at synagogues and churches, each taking on an Afghan family to help find jobs and a place to live, enroll children in school, get to doctor’s appointments and complete other routine tasks until the family can manage alone.

“I don’t know how any refugee can do this without someone to help them navigate the systems,” said Francine Tansey, the circle lead for Temple Israel of Hollywood, which is sponsoring a family of three. Students of the elementary school affiliated with the synagogue donated money to buy the family a 2011 Toyota Corolla to enable Ahmad, the head of household, to travel to work.

In San Antonio, a local Marriott resort held a job fair this year, in partnership with a resettlement agency, that attracted more than 100 Afghan applicants for 40 jobs that did not require English skills.

But those efforts are all directed at helping Afghans already in the United States. Much of the debate now is over how many others will be brought in.

In addition to family members of those already here, tens of thousands of other Afghans who supported the U.S. mission are still stranded in their home country or living in other countries. Among them are more than 74,000 people, and their families, who are in the pipeline for special immigrant visas, which offer a direct path to a green card for those who worked alongside American forces.

The Biden administration recently simplified the special immigrant visa application, but processing is still likely to take three years. About 250 to 300 people have been arriving to the United States each week — nearly all of them having applied for the visas even before the Taliban takeover.

“We can’t claim mission accomplished,” said Jennifer Quigley, senior director of government affairs at Human Rights First. “There are still too many vulnerable people abroad.”

Advocates are urging the United States to exercise the same humanitarian parole authority that it used for the evacuees airlifted a year ago to expedite the admission of vulnerable people still stranded in Afghanistan or in third countries. But the adjudication of applications has been sluggish, and denials extremely high. Of more than 48,900 requests, 369 had been approved as of July 28.

Refugees from the war in Ukraine have been offered an easier path: More than 100,000 have arrived in the United States in the five months since Russia invaded that country, 27,500 of them under a fast-track parole program established by the Biden administration in April.

“It’s working the way we wanted an Afghan parole program to,” Ms. Quigley said.

The administration has said that Ukrainians have been offered fast-track access because they are expected to return home once the war is over. But some refugee advocates see favoritism. “It’s hard for us not to think there is racial disparity taking place,” Ms. Quigley said.

Congress announced on Aug. 9 that it had introduced bipartisan legislation to streamline the process for bringing Afghans to the United States, the Afghan Adjustment Act. Advocates are pushing for the bill to be passed this year, but senior Republicans who oppose more immigration are likely to object, especially during an election year.

A year after the evacuation of Kabul, urgent new problems — rising gun violence, inflation, a growing outbreak of monkeypox — have diverted attention from the plight of those left behind after America’s longest war.

“You have one crisis after another, after another,” said Mr. Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador. “No one is thinking much about Afghanistan anymore. This administration would rather never hear the word Afghanistan again.”

On a recent day, several Afghan families now living in Northern Virginia attended a workshop sponsored by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service to fill out applications for permanent residency in the United States. They were among the minority of evacuated Afghans who had been approved for special immigrant visas before the frantic U.S. withdrawal.

Fatima, 34, whose husband worked in security at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, cannot read or write. So her husband, Sultan, had to complete the detailed forms for each member of their family of five, which took six hours, even with the help of pro bono lawyers.

Fatima, who tried to calm her fussy 2-year-old twins in her lap, said it was worth it: Their four young daughters would have a better future in America.

Nearly 3,000 miles away in Washington State, Mr. Ahadi, the pilot, lamented that the education back home of his 10-year-old daughter, Kainat, had been disrupted because his family had to constantly move to hide from the Taliban.

“She is so upset that she cannot go to school,” he said.

Mr. Ahadi said that he longed to put his flying skills to use in the United States. For now, he has been working the graveyard shift at a Frito-Lay warehouse and driving Uber part time to support his family in Afghanistan. They talk everyday.

“Half of myself is there, back in Afghanistan,” he said.

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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